Review: Star-Begotten: A Life Lived in Science Fiction, James Gunn, 2017.51CAqNyrFQL._SX348_BO1,204,203,200_

Even James Gunn didn’t live all his life in science fiction, and the parts of his autobiography about his life outside that world are as entertaining and lengthy as the rest.

Of course, Gunn is a noted science fiction writer who first published in 1949 and has had new work published in 2018. He was the first to treat science fiction as an academic subject. He taught the craft of writing it for many years. He also was the man behind the Science Fiction Lecture Film series which filmed presentations of noted science fiction writers. You can find clips on YouTube and purchase the series from the Center for the Study of Science Fiction including one of Gunn interviewing Rod Serling.

But this autobiography gives you a sense of the man and something of his times.

It was a life, he acknowledges, governed by chance. One was meeting the woman he was married to for 65 years, Jane Anderson. It might not have happened if he hadn’t left college after his junior year in 1943 when we was finally called up for the Navy Air Force which he volunteered for shortly after World War Two started. Another chance event altered the trajectory of that Navy career when an unusually calm day, a condition in which Cadet Gunn was unused to, caused him fail to slow a plane while landing it solo for the first time. He became a washed-out aviator trainee. Continue reading “Star-Begotten”


Saving the World Through Science Fiction

Review: Saving the World Through Science Fiction: James Gunn, Writer, Teacher and Scholar, Michael R. Page, 2017.51jIRlPDtwL

Before I move on to the inevitable quibbles, let me say that anyone who is a James Gunn fan should buy this book. People who are curious about Gunn and his work should buy this.

Actually, since it’s the first and only book about Gunn, there’s not a lot of choice in the matter anyway.

I’ve long thought, even before starting this blog, that Gunn was an author unjustly neglected and that I should write a series on him. However, while I’ve done some posts on Gunn and read all his novels and most of his shorter works, I didn’t make notes on a lot of them. I’d have to do a lot of rereading and make careful notes.

Page has largely saved me the trouble. He says many of the things I noticed about Gunn. He also says many things I didn’t notice. Continue reading “Saving the World Through Science Fiction”

Kampus; or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax

Essay: Kampus, James Gunn, 1977.

Cover by Bob Larkin.

“It’s easy to loosen the reins of authority but difficult to tighten them again. That would have involved the kinds of effort we no longer were capable of making and would have revolutionized our society almost as much as you threatened. So we gave you the campuses. We walled you in. The serious scholars departed, and we left you here to play your games and survive, if you could, and maybe some of you would survive, if you could, and maybe some of you would graduate. …

“You may think it’s ridiculous to have a mechanical Chancellor. But it is no more ridiculous than having mechanical students. And that is what you are, mechanically responding to stimuli like so many robots.”

The speaker is the Chancellor of the University of Kansas. It’s about 1998, and the students have gotten what they wanted after the Free Speech movement of the 1960s – a place to play their own power games and hierarchy struggles while complaining about social injustice.

In 1968, James Gunn, 45 years old and dealing with student unrest in his role as public relations director at the University of Kampus, started this novel. It wasn’t even conceived as science fiction though it uses the chemical memory theories of James McConnell. It was a to be a satire on the world, according to Gunn’s autobiography, Star-Begotten (to be covered in a future post),

the student rebels might have made if they had been successful and imagined a near future when the college campuses had been turned over to the students, and real science and scholarship had gone elsewhere.

The recipient of the Chancellor’s words is Gavin, our unlikeable, Candide-like hero. He will discover that world the students have made is definitely not the best possible one. Continue reading “Kampus; or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax”

Transcendental Tales

Review: Transcendental Tales, James Gunn 2017 – 2018.

I did not know until I read Michael W. Page’s Saving the World Through Science Fiction: James Gunn, Writer, Teacher, and Scholar (which I’ll be reviewing two posts down the line) that James Gunn has a law named after him. Gunn’s Law says “Sell it twice”.

Now, I have certainly encountered “fix-ups” before, novels stitched together from shorter works first published in magazines. Most of Gunn’s novels were constructed that way. And I’ve certainly seen novel excerpts published in science fiction magazines.

However, this is something I haven’t seen before: a series of short stories based on chapters from a novel.

Most of these stories are variations of chapters in Gunn’s Transcendental. As Gunn stated in his essay on the Transcendental Trilogy and how it came to be, “Thought Experiment: Space Opera and the Quest for Transcendence” in the January/February 2018 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction, he expanded the individual human and alien pilgrims into more “traditional narratives”. Oddly enough, the fullest explanation of when the Transcendental Tales stories are set, about a 1,000 years in the future, is in the issue with their second to last appearance.

I read a couple of these after finishing Transgalactic and the rest after finishing Transformation.

I’m not going to cover these tales in a lot of detail. I’m not particularly interested in textual variant criticism. Author and theme studies are more my thing.

Nor am I going to address the merits of each tale as individual works.

I will say that, divorced from their original context in Transcendental, these stories do help you appreciate the inventiveness Gunn showed on the individual pilgrim tales. When reading the book, one might feel a bit of impatience as one wants to get through each individual story to get back to the main story of the pilgrimage to find the Transcendence Machine and the intrigues and dangers of that journey.

I don’t know how they would appear to someone unfamiliar with that novel. I would think they were interesting but unsatisfying because, of course, they leave in the air the fate of each pilgrim and don’t answer the question whether they will find transcendence. Some would have led me to seek out the novel. Others wouldn’t.

There are some new background and character bits that are of interest for those who have read Transcendental and my reviews will be from that perspective.

All the chapters I mention are from that novel.

AshaThe Escape of the Adastra: Asha’s Story” (Asimov’s Science Fiction, May/June 2017) is a fairly significant modification of the “Asha’s Story” chapter. The beginning three paragraphs seem to be new. The first paragaph talks about the pursuit of the Adastra after it escapes Federation Central. The second paragraph talks about the launch of the Adastra, the first human starship to leave Earth’s solar system. Asha’s father was born on the ship, and he mentions being taken to a room of Earth relics that the original crew frequently visited in their homesickness. The second generation only visited when forced to by their parents. The third – Asha’s generation – forgot them. The third paragraph expands the depiction of the voyage and alters and expands the opening of “Asha’s Story”. We get more detail of the building and inhabiting of Federation Central. The account of the relationship between Asha and Ren is expanded with added dialogue both on the ship and during their escape. Significantly, Asha, in “Asha’s Story ”, says

“Ren was in love with me, and I thought I was in love with him, although it may have been only sympathy for his plight and admiration for his dedication”.

This story has Asha wondering if she loves him or if she just likes his resolve and wonders if she can make Ren love her. The two stories differ markedly in their conclusion. This one gives details on their escape, their attempts to get a message back to Earth about the Galactic Federation’s plans to wage war on Earth and Ren contemplating that war is inevitable but, maybe with the death and destruction ended by a truce, there may be rewards. It ends with Ren noting that not knowing what will happen to them is exciting. “Asha’s Story” ends with the account of the Adastra landing on the planet of the spiders, battling them, and Asha entering the Transcendental Machine and becoming the Prophet. Continue reading “Transcendental Tales”


Essay: Transformation, James Gunn, 2017.

Covery by Thom Tenery

Well, that was anticlimactic.

That was my first reaction to finishing up Gunn’s Transcendental trilogy.

The second volume, Transgalactic, had a plot, according to Gunn, structured on The Odyssey, this one is structured along the lines of Jason and the Argonauts’ tale. Our questers are the two main characters of the trilogy,  Asha and Riley, and Tordor who didn’t, in fact, die at the end of Transcendental. Joining them is Adithya, son of Latha, leader of the covert rebellion against Earth’s pedia in Transgalactic.

They want to know what menace, revealed in the preceding book, is making the sentient races of the Galactic Federation go silent on the fringes of the galaxy.

A subplot also has Jer, cloned descendant of mad scientist Jak whom we met in Transgalactic, attempting to convince the staid Federation Council that the modified Transcendental Machine (named, what else?, the Jak Machine) poses no danger and works. These sections are sometimes humorous.  She also suggests that, to fight the destroyer of the “silent worlds” (whose nature she doesn’t know), the Galactics will need to be Transcended.

The trilogy concludes with the line “’It’s a long story,’ Asha said.” Continue reading “Transformation”

Gift From the Stars

Last summer, while I was waiting to get my hands on James Gunn’s latest novel, Transformation, I decided to fill in one of my few gaps in reading his fiction, so I took this one off the shelf.

It turns out it has some unexpected similarities to Gunn’s Transcendental trilogy and interesting on its own.

Review: Gift From the Stars, James Gunn, 2005.Gift from the Stars

As explained in Gunn’s preface as well as the introduction by Gregory Benford, this novel is part of a feedback loop with SETI research as well as Carl Sagan’s Contact.

Sagan was a great admirer of Gunn’s The Listeners, a set of novelletes turned into a novel which depicts the decades long quest for a signal from an alien intelligence and the effects of receiving one on humanity. Gunn took his ideas from SETI researcher Frank Drake as well as Sagan, and Benford says Gunn’s novel, in turn, influenced the paradigms of SETI efforts.

Sagan’s Contact was a response to Gunn’s novel, and Gunn started this novel, another one of his characteristic fix-ups of several shorter works, in response to the movie adaptation of Sagan’s novel. Specifically, Gunn didn’t find the end alien message or its purpose credible.

The result is an upping of scale from section to section. Benford says it puts him in mind of A. E. van Vogt’s famous method of writing 800 word scenes and then introducing a new wrinkle into the narrative. While that led, according to Benford, “gathering incoherence” in van Vogt, it leads to “expanding vistas” in this novel. Continue reading “Gift From the Stars”


Essay: Transgalactic, James Gunn, 2016.

Cover by Thom Tenery

”That sounds like some ancient space romance. … Full of incredible adventures and near-death escapes.”

So says mad scientist Jak, making an on-stage appearance here after being mentioned in the first novel, Transcendental, of the Transcendental trilogy.

Whereas that novel was full of interrogative statements and a density of question marks unparalleled in my reading (except, maybe, in my dim memories of Plato’s The Republic), its follow up is full of confident declarations, declarations that echo other works of Gunn and of Gunn’s friends Jack Williamson and Frederik Pohl.

And it is full of adventure, romance, and near-death escapes.

Gunn has, to my knowledge, the longest career of any living English language science fiction author – 69 years though that is still less than Williamson’s 83 year-long career. Continue reading “Transgalactic”